Till 2014, I was totally unaware about this literary genius who is highly popular amongst the Indians for his Anglophilia and pompous British sensibilities until one of my friends suggested that I read his innocuously popular book named The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian.
He is none than Nirad Chandra Chaudhuri. 20, Lathbury Road, Oxford was Nirad babu’s final home where he died at the age of 101. Any aficionado of most celebrated work The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian would remember his affectionate memories of his village in Kishorganj as well as his tepid acceptance of Calcutta where he once resided amidst great poverty.
His ironic dedication of the ‘Autobiography to the British Empire’ startled many and especially those who never read beyond the dedication page.
I have met Nirad babu through the pages of his Autobiography as well as through his other books. In A Passage to England, a series of BBC Broadcasts after he visited England for the first time at the age of 57, he saw England as almost a confirmation to his textual view of England through Literature. His house at Lathbury Road perfectly fits into his vision of what England is.
Nirad Chaudhuri was a very intricate man whose literary works both in Bengali and English are extolled all over the world.
“He was a familiar and arresting sight out and about in Oxford”, the Blue Plaque website describes, “a diminutive figure, always impeccably dressed in a three-piece suit, although he wore Indian attire at home.”
Reminiscences penned down by Ramachandra Guha and Tapan Raychaudhuri, among others bear testimony to his vertiginously deep intellect and encyclopedic knowledge.
At the same time, he remained sympathetic to the rights of Hindus in India and ignited the colonial stereotype of the Muslims. He had a deep sense of loathing towards his fellow Bengalis and moreover, the title of his autobiography is only one instance of his deep indignation to the establishment that denied him proper fame.
What was ‘home’ for Nirad Chaudhuri? How did a village boy from Kishorganj, a student of Calcutta University, a political commentator for All India Radio find his ideal home in 20, Lathbury Road, Oxford?
Why was he always in love with England, though he had never visited the land before the age of 57? These questions perplexed me and the only answer I could decipher is that perhaps Nirad Chaudhuri was in search of a home that he could call his own.
And perhaps this street in 1980s took him closer to the novels of Hardy and Austen. Lovers of literature not only see texts through their lives but also sculpt live through the texts they read. His textual affinity was coupled with the colonial aura he grew up with- we must remember that he spent his first 50 years in an empire where the sun never set.
His England was a realisation of certain dominant sensibilities and visions he idealised but they were far from reality. Places like 20, Lathbury road makes me wonder why people choose to migrate and why certain places receive more sanctity than others. For Nirad Chaudhuri, England was sacred and for some America is. The solution to this onerous puzzle cannot be found in better living standard or socio-economic conditions of higher wages.
Furthermore, certain places celebrate certain people. Nirad Chaudhuri would have been immensely happy if he knew about the blue plaque as it would fit his sensibilities perfectly. Even Oxford County Council was happy enough to remember this “an original thinker, forthright in his opinions and an internationalist, in the sense of one who embraces the best of all cultures but never loses his own.”
Indeed, he never forgot his own venerable culture and traditions as memoirs recount him as always wearing white dhuti-punjabi at home.
Trraces of the invincible spirit of this highly renowned ‘Unknown Bengali’ still persist in the calm nook and corner of 20, Lathbury Road, Oxfordshire.
(Class XI, Coordinator, Don Bosco School, Bandel)